Christiane Feser: On Not Expecting a Window

The enemy of photography is the convention, the fixed rules of ‘how to do’. The salvation of photography comes from the experiment. Lazlo Maholy Nagy

The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.  Viktor Shklovsky

A photograph … is not a picture of something, but is an object about something. Robert Heinecken


Nicephore Niepce, View from the Window at Le Gras, c.1826


Henry Fox Talbot, Lacock Abbey, 1835

Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, 1838















Three iconic images from the early days of photographic history present window views — Niepce’s View from the Window at Le Gras, Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple and Henry Fox Talbot’s Latticed Window at Lacock Abbey. Utilizing the window was partially due to the enormous amount of light necessary to make an exposure, but it also had very much to do with the expectation that this new medium would provide a true likeness of the world — a likeness not compromised by human subjectivity — as if one was simply gazing without agenda. Having toiled for years in chemistry and optics, Henry Fox Talbot used the term ‘pencil of nature’ to describe how his images were “impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil.” This idea of non-intervention by the artist, as if the photographer / artist was more of a midwife, an assistant to the miraculous birth of the image, created a paradox that continues to influence our perception of the medium.

Looking at a photograph, we expect a window. We have been acculturated to look past the complex optical and technological processes of creating a photograph to see the thing depicted – ‘That’s my mom when she was a girl” or “I love a sunset on a beach, wish I was there.” The ubiquity, banality, and power in photography derive from the promise of uninterrupted sight – a reliable extension of the human eye. The window-like perception of photography is a gift and a hindrance, offering accessibility while taking advantage of a cultural blind spot — we don’t see the machinery or the process, we only see what they are pointing at.

Sometimes a simple scratch on the negative, crease in the image, or similar inadvertent interruption will call photography’s transparency into question. With that subversion in mind, some artists deliberately break the window. This impulse can be subjective or programmatic — in 1929, Lazlo Maholy Nagy, helped to organize the unprecedented exhibition Film und Foto at the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. Over 1000 photographic images by the likes of Maholy Nagy himself, Hannah Hoch, Marcel Duchamp, and Alexandr Rodchenko, made manifest the ideas of the Constructivism, and Neue Sehen, or New Optics, that celebrated an experimental photography that expanded the concept of the photograph beyond mere likeness.


Christiane Feser, Modelle 7

Christiane Feser, Modelle 8















In recent decades, this spirit of experimentation, of calling into question the nature of photographic seeing, is fueling a new generation of artists. For over a decade, Christiane Feser has been making images that explicitly or implicitly intervene in photographic transparency. In her early project Modelle (2003, 2008), Feser takes a cue from Robert Heinecken, ripping pages out of fashion magazines, crumpling and folding the perfectly Photoshopped images to make twisted totemic objects that are photographed like hyper-real sculptures. Her 2005 project Strassen, is a series of street scenes in which the windows of suburban homes have been digitally erased. The streets between the houses are lifeless passageways devoid even of litter. Overcast skies, reminiscent of the gray backdrops for the Becher’s photographic typologies, hover over these blind structures. A feeling of claustrophobia seeps in as one imagines the inescapable interiors. Like a cruel joke, small rooftop skylights remain allowing a few gray photons to leak into the dim interiors.


Christiane Feser, Strassen 5


Christiane Feser, Weise am Reithlift

Christiane Feser, Weise am Reithlift, detail


In Wiese Am Reitlift (2007), Feser takes an opposing approach, suggesting not blindness, but instead offering an image with such a surfeit of detail that one can never fully comprehend all that is depicted. A pastoral landscape is presented via an interactive monitor that allows the viewer to zoom in and around the image to survey previously hidden or hard-to-see details. One might initially perceive the man who is standing relatively close, peering back at the camera through binoculars. Scroll in deeper and one discovers hikers, dozing cattle, families out for a walk, and a shadowy figure lurking in a stand of trees. Look even closer and you will find a startled couple walking a dog, and high above a paraglider surveys the entire scene from a radically different perspective. Here the act of photographic seeing is equated not with a windowless interior but with a landscape of infinite detail so that perception is endlessly incomplete.


Christiane Feser, Falten


The very next year Feser’s work takes a radical pivot with the project Falten. Thousands of sheets of standard photo-copy paper were folded, photographed and then digitally sutured together to create seemingly infinite fields of curled, creased, and folded paper. The photographs strike a curious balance between banality and strangeness — so familiar are these blank sheets of paper, a material almost invisible in its ubiquity, and only acknowledged when something is printed on it, that one might consider these images of nothing. Yet the intricate and repetitive topography created by the folding suggests a world or landscape without markers, without direction, without language to guide us. If one imagines oneself immersed in this monochrome landscape without signifiers, this geography of nowhere, a distinct feeling of disorientation and a peculiar nausea begin to set in.

Like origami from an ominous extraterrestrial civilization, the images of Objekte simulate enigmatic sculptures created out of intricately folded black paper. Feser accomplishes something remarkable with these images; she drains the photographs of their evidentiary quality, their promise of the real, to create images of objects that do not exist; yet despite the photographic lie, these enigmatic sculptures appear before us in vivid detail. The connotative imagination runs amok, inferring references from Victorian funereal motifs to what might happen if Frank Gehry were commissioned to design a Gothic Cathedral.


Christiane Feser, Objekte


Christiane Feser, Latente Konstrukte


With more recent projects, such as Latent Konstrukte, Feser has relied less on digital manipulation and has instead manually attacked the surface of photographs with sharp blades and pointed objects, piercing the illusionistic window, rearranging parts of the photograph, adding layers through the placement of thread and shadows, then re-photographing the construction. In these works the transparency of photography is torn apart to create unique objects that exist somewhere in between paper and sculpture.

The works in Partitionen achieve an agile balance between stubborn materiality and illusion. Feser cuts, folds, and arranges paper in intricate, repeating patterns. She then photographs the arrangements, carefully controlling perspective, composition, and lighting. Each image is a hybrid of photographic transparency and the unique properties of the shaped paper — flexibility, opacity, and thickness. Human imagination cannot be contained, dancing as it does between the denotative and the connotative. The patterns suggest both natural and technological origin, references to cellular biology, flocking or herding futuristic creatures, and architectural follies abound.


Christiane Feser, Partition 67


The titles of Feser’s projects are direct – Strassen, Falten, Objekte, Latent Konstrukte, and Partitionen, — each referring to the thing or process depicted. In that sense Feser makes no claim to the metaphoric, not out of modesty I think, but rather with a kind of faith that by simplifying and reducing outside referents, we might be able to slow down the process of perception and see more clearly. Viktor Shklovsky’s Constructivist ideals, born as they were of revolution, called for a new perception of art and politics, without illusion. This liberation from old ways of seeing were to be achieved though estrangement or de-familiarization – to rescue the familiar from banality. This may be difficult or even impossible to sustain, but when we confront an image / object that leads us to question our assumptions about art, especially about the nature of photography, when we can clearly observe our own perceptual process of alchemizing mute matter to metaphor — a new kind of wonder may be realized.


Christiane Feser, Installation View


This essay originally appeared in the catalog Partitionen published by Hartmann Books, 2017. Feser is represented by Galerie Anita Beckers in Frankfurt, and Von Lintel Gallery in Los Angeles.